Despite dangerous disunity it is growing and looks to future with confidence
By Emanuel Rackman & Charles S. Liebman
The co-authors of this article are distinguished leaders of Orthodox Jewry. Dr. Emanuel Rackman is Rabbi of Congregation Shaaray Tefila, in Far Rockaway, N. Y., and assistant to the President of Yeshiva University. He is a former President of the Rabbinical Council of America and of the New York Board of Rabbis. Charles S. Liebman is assistant professor of political science at Yeshiva University and co-author of a forthcoming book on suburban politics. His articles on American Orthodoxy have appeared in Judaism and Tradition, and he is the author of a feature article on American Orthodox Judaism which will appear in the 1965 “American Jewish Yearbook,”—Editor.
The present situation of American Jewish Orthodoxy, at first glance, is paradoxical. On the one hand, there appear to be signs of dynamic growth. Rabbis and professional leaders of Orthodox organizations are cheerful and optimistic about their future. The previous fear that Orthodox Jews could not survive in the American milieu has all but disappeared. They are building synagogues in suburban areas, and even if their number does not equal that of Conservative and Reform temples, it is very impressive. The number of Orthodox day schools has likewise increased, and the Orthodox community has gained increasing recognition and respect from the non-Orthodox Jewish world because of its courage in articulating authentic Jewish perspectives on national and international issues.
At the same time, there are a number of community studies which compare the age distribution, social characteristics, and religious affiliation or identification of American Jews. These convey a gloomier picture. In every city studied, the results were the same:
Orthodox Jews were found on the average to have lower incomes, to be more poorly educated, and most important of all, to be much older than other Jews. Whereas the Orthodox might constitute over 50% of the Jewish population above the age of 60, their proportion of the population for the 20-30 age group might fall to 10% or lower. In the face of this, one might well ask: Why all the rejoicing on the part of Orthodox rabbis and professionals? Doesn’t the evidence indicate that Orthodoxy has no future in the United States?
ORTHODOXY INTERESTS MANY
Yet even the knowledgeable non-Orthodox sense that this is not the case. They and the organizations they lead are evincing a tremendous interest in Orthodoxy. The forthcoming issue of the “American Jewish Year Book” (published by the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Publication Society) is devoting its feature article to American Orthodoxy. Yeshiva University is besieged daily with requests from Jewish as well as non-Jewish organizations and institutions, newspapers, magazines, and television stations for assistance in the preparation of articles, stories, and features on American Orthodoxy. Are we to dismiss all of this as research in anticipation of an obituary?
The fact of the matter is that Orthodoxy is in one sense dying and in another sense renewing itself. To understand what has taken place, however, we must understand the history of the Orthodox Jewish community in the United States.
For the first two and a half centuries of American Jewish history there was a preponderance of Jewish illiteracy. The number of learned rabbis was negligible. Even in the great waves of immigration at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th one simply did not find the intellectual and spiritual elite of Eastern Europe in the same proportion that they were to be found in the countries of their origin. There were committed Jews who built synagogues and day schools—even the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. But the outstanding rabbinic leaders of Eastern and Central Europe did not come to the U. S., and even sought to dissuade their Jewish countrymen from coming to a trefe land. The greatest rabbinic authority of his generation, the renowned Rabbi Israel Meir ha-Kohen, the “Chofetz Chaim”, warned Jews to stay at home and not endanger their Judaism by emigrating.
Most of those who did come were Orthodox because they knew no other way of life. Confronted with the possibility offered in America of abandoning their ancestral ways, which impeded their upward climb on the economic and social ladder, they left the Orthodox fold. Even many of those who chose to remain in the fold did so not because they were ideologically or philosophically committed to Orthodoxy, but rather because it represented a way of life with which they had neither the energy nor the initiative to break. (Obviously, there were those who remained traditional out of conviction, but they could hardly stem the tide.) The children of this large contingent of Orthodox Jews who remained within their familiar camp because of lethargy or inertia rather than commitment, had little or no reason to retain their Orthodoxy. Sometimes they retained it for reasons sentimental or superstitious. But knowledge plus commitment was rare.
OLD GENERATION IS PASSING
This is also the group which is still large enough numerically and proportionately to determine the statistical profile of Orthodoxy. That is why statistics indicate that Orthodox Jews are older, of more recent immigrant origin, and generally more poorly educated. However, this is a vanishing remnant. Within a generation it will be gone or will have experienced a transformation as a result of Orthodoxy’s new face.
This new face comprises two clements. First there arc what may be called the “modern Orthodox”. Among these are the offspring of earlier immigrants who, unlike most of their contemporaries — second generation Americans—chose the alternative of Orthodoxy. They have become acculturated to American life, and arc relatively well educated. They have built new and modern synagogues and introduced many new practices which remain within the bounds of halachic requirements even when they ostensibly represent a departure from the behavior of their forebears. In many “modern Orthodox” synagogues are also found non-observant Jews who arc nevertheless impressed by the commitment of the rabbi or the other congregants, the warmth of the service, or the nostalgia it evokes. The ranks of this group are further augmented by a growing number of young American Jews who were reared in totally non-observant homes but who have embraced a more traditional spirit of Judaism.
But “modern Orthodoxy” is not the only component of contemporary Orthodoxy. The second large group consists of those who emigrated more recently to the United States—immediately prior to World War II or shortly thereafter. Unlike the earlier immigrants, this group has a deeper commitment to Orthodoxy and a higher level of Jewish learning. Unlike the “modern Orthodox,” they reject many manifestations of contemporary life. They arc far less outgoing and thus, while they exercise much less influence on other American Jews, they arc also less influenced by them and less compromising in the nature of their religious practices.
They are, themselves, however, not a monolithic group. They include a variety of Chassidic groups, including the ultra-Orthodox Satmar, numbering 35,000 to 40,000, who eschew secular education, and have little contact with other Jews. The other Chassidic groups, including the numerically larger Lubavitcher Chassidim, arc less resistant to sonic form of acculturation. In addition to the Chassidic groups, there are many Yeshivot for Talmudic study such as Rabbi Chaim Berlin or Torah Vodaath, in New York, the Beth Mcdrosh Govoha, in Lakewood, Ner Israel in Baltimore, and Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland. These are far less preoccupied than Yeshiva University is with the synthesis of Torah learning and western civilization. At their helm stand “Roshei Yeshivot” (heads of Yeshivas) whose relationship to their students and alumni often resembles the charismatic relationship of the “Chassid” to his “rebbe”.
Generally, it can be said that American Jewish Orthodoxy is more poorly organized than cither Conservatism or Reform. However, no group can rally for any cause cither the zeal or the numbers that Orthodoxy can. The funeral of a Rosh Yeshiva can evoke the participation of at least a hundred thousand people as the cortege moves from Lakewood to New York and thence to Jerusalem. Lectures by another Rosh Yeshiva—with the meagrest advance publicity—finds New York’s largest auditoriums filled to capacity. A call for a demonstration, even picketing, receives a response more keenly felt than any sponsored by better organized groups with professional public relations staffs. The republication of Jewish classics in the original Hebrew is good business: modern Jewish writers enjoy no comparable market. Even the marketing of kosher products has reached such proportions that the Wall Street Journal takes note of it.
And all of this was achieved without any coordination or even cooperation between the various components of American Orthodoxy. The component that is less concerned with acculturation expresses its views through the heads of the Yeshivot, and in such organizations as the Union of Orthodox Rabbis, which is primarily composed of European-trained rabbis, and the Rabbinical Alliance of America, which is composed primarily of younger American trained graduates of Yeshivot other than Yeshiva University and the Hebrew Theological College of Chicago.
Their voice is also expressed by Agudath Israel and is often heeded, though not always followed, by the National Young Israel movement, with close to 100 synagogues, and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, with several hundred affiliated synagogues. In addition, each of the Chassidic groups has its own rabbinic authority and its own network of schools from the elementary level to advanced Talmudic academies.